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Vicki Richardson
Photography by Brent Holmes

‘What you do there really matters’

Desert Companion

The iconic Left of Center Gallery is only the latest of Vicki Richardson’s efforts to uplift people and create community

As the civil rights movement took hold in America — sit-ins, marches, the reverberating words of Dr. King — Vicki Richardson, a young African-American college student from Wilmington, Delaware, arrived at Nashville’s Fisk University, known as a hotbed of civil-rights activity. Richardson was alert to her times; she’d seen the two Americas, understood the role skin color played in the world around her, had even seen it up close, even within her own family. Her light-skinned uncles chose to pass as white, returning home only in middle-of-the-night
visits so as not to be detected.

She arrived in Nashville after attending high school in an experimental desegregation program in the ’50s. In the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, school officials in Wilmington cherry-picked the highest-achieving black students to send to white schools. Richardson was one of 12 selected. “I thought it was a privilege because that’s the way they made it seem,” she says. “But when they came in, they siphoned off the best students. The black teachers resented them for taking the best students, but because it would be good, they didn’t want them to fail. It would open the doors.”

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Doors needed to be opened. Segregation was a barrier that allowed only an occasional few to climb over. Entire communities were on economic lockdown. Richardson took three buses to get from her black neighborhood to her white school. She excelled there, participating on the yearbook staff, singing in choir and working on activities committees. Her editorials about segregation were published in local papers.

Her mother didn’t want her to go south for college. Her father, a well-traveled merchant marine, suggested she study in Paris. But this was 1962, change was afoot, and Richardson wanted to attend Fisk, founded in 1866 for freed slaves; it focused heavily on intellectual pursuits and was famous for its politically active student body. The school’s notable alums included W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. She was involved in marches and learned nonresponse tactics in the event someone should spit on her face, pour beverages on her or scream racial epithets into her ear.

A life in arts education wasn’t her plan; Richardson came to Fisk to major in theology and philosophy. But while researching a paper that touched on religious art, she wandered into the school’s art department, where she met Aaron Douglas, a painter and graphic artist who’d made a name for himself during the Harlem Renaissance. “He was so interesting, and here I was studying medieval art and artifacts,” she recalls. “His reason for doing art was for documenting the African-American experience.” He saw illustrations Vicki had made for her student paper and, after talking, she says, told her, “This is where you belong.”

He was right. All these years later, Richardson tells this story while sitting in her office at Left of Center, the nonprofit art gallery, educational center and community hub she’s run in North Las Vegas for more than 25 years.

After Fisk, a Ford Foundation Fellowship landed her at the University of Chicago to study inner-city education and curriculum development. During that time she taught at a school in Chicago, crossing from one gang territory into the next, she says. But Richardson was committed to teaching minority students. 

“If you treat them like they’re worth something and have high expectations, they’ll come up,” says the former Clark County School District teacher. “A lot of them got ignored and got lost in the system. I’ve seen it all. People have lower expectations for minority kids than for white kids.”

 

*****

It’s a Tuesday evening, and Richardson is sitting at her desk in Left of Center Gallery, on Gowan Road, located in her husband’s construction building, which the galleries, teaching spaces and offices have nearly overtaken. Outside her office on the second floor is a three-room collection of African art, ceremonial masks, statues and musical instruments, which she began gathering on her teacher’s salary and which was combined with collections owned by late artist Calvin B. Jones and Joseph Walker. Richardson says she reached out to the American Alliance of Museums last year to move toward accreditation.

When she opened Left of Center in the ’90s, originally as a for-profit, its mission was education and inclusion through the arts. This meant building a community of artists and getting their work into the larger cultural scene through exhibits and public art projects. The gallery’s name came from song lyrics by Suzanne Vega: “If you want me/ You can find me/ Left of center/ Off of the strip” — a perfect fit, geographically, socially and politically.

That’s particularly evident in the first-floor galleries, where contemporary narratives play out in exhibits that address social justice in such topics as women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racism, immigration and politics. Reaching further into the art community, the gallery is showing the work of UNLV’s BFA and MFA students for the first time. A recent exhibit, Seeking Justice Through Art, included a panel on equality.

“We have a strong commitment to social justice, marrying activism, education and art,” says Left of Center’s development director, artist Denise Duarte. “I think it’s something that sets Left of Center apart. Art as a vehicle for social change is something Vicki and I are very committed to. A lot of our programming is focused on that. What you do there really matters for something. It’s very fulfilling.”

As her husband, Louis, takes care of business elsewhere in the building, Richardson recounts arriving in Las Vegas in 1978 with two young daughters, a master’s degree and concerns about the heat: “I thought nothing was meant to live here but lizards and snakes. I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I remember that feeling.” She was hired by the Clark County School District, only to reject the first two schools she was assigned to, she says. Her training was for inner-city education, black schools, and even though she was told that schools in Las Vegas were integrated, the activist in her was adamant. She wanted a school where students were disadvantaged. Eventually the call came: We think we have the school for you.

Rancho High was a diverse school known for its high teacher turnover and racial tension — it had endured riots in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Richardson was hired as an art teacher, assigned to a portable behind the school, as she recalls, previously used as a storage shed for football equipment. No phone. No intercom. She was shut off from the rest of the faculty and student body. And it was perfect. She had full control of the air conditioner and placed potted plants on the metal steps leading into her classroom. The adjacent football field was a great place for her students to study gesture drawing. When the school eliminated its drafting program, her students got the tables. 

“They took bets on me that I wouldn’t last longer than six months,” she says. “I thought I was in heaven, and they thought they were giving me the worst place in the whole school.”

She got her students to enter art competitions. “We won them left and right, local, state, federal. Anything I could get them in, I did. I just wanted their work to be seen. It gave them confidence in themselves. They were proud of their work, and they were doing good work. And we developed an advancement program so they could get college credit.”

After nine years at Rancho, she transferred to Cheyenne, but some of her Rancho students still recall her time there. “She was more than just a teacher,” says Randy Proby, one of those Rancho kids, who later attended UNLV on a track scholarship while majoring in art. He now has a studio at Left of Center. “She took us out of the school and into the community. She got our work into the banks and libraries around town. She really cared about us. Most art teachers would teach a class and that’s it. She found our strengths and helped us use our strengths. She was our mentor, our friend.

“Her husband took me under his wing and treated me like a son. I babysat her kids. She was a mentor in raising my own kids. She did all that stuff, activism over racial divide. Here, everyone’s the same. Everybody is equal.”

 

*****

Duarte met Richardson in the early 2000s when she was helping her longtime partner Marlene Adrian film a documentary about Nevada women artists. Richardson ended up being featured in the documentary, Voices of Nevada Women Artists. Shortly afterward, Richardson, who was on the Las Vegas Arts Commission, was the facilitator of a public art project in West Las Vegas titled Ancestral Gateway, which was designed to reflect the West Las Vegas community and installed in 2008 outside Doolittle Senior Center. Duarte and artists Dayo Adelaja, Sylvester Collier and Adolfo R. Gonzalez collaborated on the steel sculpture, which incorporates African symbols and is surrounded by a small meditation path.

“She guided us through that entire process,” Duarte says. “It was a really beautiful experience. It was just so effortless how we worked together and took the design to another level. It was a comfort that we can all rely on each other. I really got Left of Center during that project.”

The project came out of a call from area activists who lobbied for public art in West Las Vegas, a long-marginalized community in the valley.

“For me, that was really important to the project, because people wanted it,” Duarte says. “It was coming from the people up, not government down. It was very important to me that we get it right. Vicki was with us every step of the way.” These days, Richardson serves on Clark County’s Art Committee for its Percent for Arts Program as an artist and gallery owner.

“She’s one of those heroes of the arts community,” says Patrick Gaffey, Clark County’s cultural program supervisor and longtime arts advocate. “The first time I ever saw her gallery there, it was on the edge of the desert in an industrial building. It was really an odd place for a gallery. But then I went upstairs, and it was a beautiful gallery with a teaching space and workshop. I admire her dedication over the long term. She knew what she wanted to do and stuck with it. She’s helped so many artists and provided resources, which is so valuable.”

She’s never without her activist side, however. Left of Center is, predictably, the gallery that gets called when someone needs art for African-American History Month, much to Richardson’s chagrin. She doesn’t want to see black art stereotyped as one style worthy of one month.

“Sometimes we don’t give them what they want,” she says with a small smile. What they want, of course, is realistic art depicting black life or issues. “It’s the rebel in me. They think black art is only representational; we’ll send abstract.”

 

*****

If the Fisk-bound Richardson hadn’t imagined herself as an arts educator, she probably wouldn’t have pictured herself as something else she has become: a successful businesswoman. She owns three Auntie Anne’s pretzel shops — a venture that, not surprisingly, helps financially support Left of Center. It began after she’d retired from teaching, when she was awarded the contract to open an Illy Coffee shop in the D Gates at McCarran International Airport. Also not surprisingly, she threw herself into the venture with characteristic zeal, sleeping on a lawn chair in the airport from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. in order to greet the milkman, the muffin man — and sometimes make coffee for her morning employees. They were her team, and when the store would open, she’d shout, “Curtains up!”

“You’re ambassadors to Las Vegas,” she’d remind them. “You’re not just someone pouring coffee. You’re a barista. That’s science.”

Skeptics told her nobody would buy Italian coffee, but she knew better, having done her research. She designed the space herself, designed the employee handbook, hired and taught employees, took inventory and learned about airport culture. She pushed her employees, encouraged them, sent them to barista competitions.

Sound familiar?

“It was exciting,” she says. “Building teams of people, it was like school again.”

She eventually sold her Illy store to Starbucks and bought a few Auntie Anne’s shops (founded by a woman whose Amish roots and altruistic vision appealed to Richardson). She also has a joint venture with Starbucks and other shops at the airport. “My team looks like a little United Nations,” she says. “When we have a tsunami across the world, we give. When there’s a disaster here, we give. We give to Doctors without Borders, flooding in Michigan. We support teachers’ projects in the school district and give to other local efforts.”

Somewhere along the way, she stopped sleeping in the lawn chair.

 

*****

The sun has gone down and the gallery has closed. Louis is finishing his business for the night; he pops in and out. Like Richardson, he’s quiet. As we talk, she opens her desk drawer and pulls out a black-and-white photo of late West Las Vegas artist Benny Cassel and sets it on her desk with great reverence. Cassel was showing work by African-Americans in a house on what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard, which included a bookstore. When he and his wife went to live in Africa with their children, she took over management of the space, while still teaching at Rancho and bringing her own children with her to the house gallery. At the time there was an effort to rally black artists and give them an educational space to feel welcome, even going door-to-door seeking those in the community making art.

“He was one who really showed me that I had an obligation to share some of the things I learned,” Richardson said. “He made it bigger than just teaching art. He made it about what arts can be to a community. He wanted to have a place where people connect, not just a gallery. Wanted to teach art, but also how to teach the whole person.” Left of Center became the realization of that idea.

She’s sure her old mentor Aaron Douglas would approve, too. “I think he would be very proud of what I’ve accomplished, proud that I’m doing something to encourage and nurture artists in the same way as he did in his classroom and while still maintaining a stewardship to my culture.”

She’s an artist, too, by the way. Her work has a modernist feel, with landscapes evoking Georgia O’Keeffe, and richly colored representational paintings speaking to the African-American spirit. That and her contemporary abstract work fit in with the bold aesthetic of artists who work in LoC’s open studios on Saturdays.

Artist Harold Bradford has been with Left of Center since its early years. “It is one of the single most important things that has happened in my life as far as art is concerned,” he says. “It opened up different avenues to show my work. I met her the first year I was here, in 1985. I didn’t know anyone in town. They came over to my home to see the work, and then we started meeting for breakfast almost every Saturday.”

Richardson, whose childhood was entrenched in segregation, has made her life all about multiculturalism and inclusion. Though she’s 71, she’s not about to stop.

“He’s never going to retire,” she says of her husband, who’s standing in the doorway. “I’m never going to retire. We’re just too involved.” 

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